It would be hard to imagine an event more somber than the one Bush attended one Sunday morning in September of 1999 at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Although the outdoor stadium he entered was usually a place of frenetic activity, it was now a scene of eerie stillness and quiet, its thousands of occupants sitting or standing with their heads bowed. They had come not to cheer a team but to mourn a tragedy, the deaths of seven people inside a nearby church. Once again, someone with a grudge and a gun had vented his anger with bullets, and once again, a nation reeled from the senselessness of it all.
Just a few days earlier, parishioners at a prayer service at the Wedgwood Baptist Church had been singing a pop version of a traditional Christian hymn when a long-haired man in jeans and a black jacket barged in, screaming obscenities. He opened fire, hitting more than a dozen of them, including many teenagers, before he was finished and turned his weapon on himself. It was the deadliest shooting in the city's history, and it precipitated the anguished and inevitable questions about what could have been done to prevent the violence, about why the hail of gunfire that traced back to San Ysidro and proceeded through Columbine continued to go on and on. Bush found himself in an especially awkward position, because his record as Texas governor was one of defending gun owners' rights; he had even signed a law permitting private citizens with proper licenses to carry concealed weapons. Now he, too, was under a different kind of fire.
The public memorial service at the university wasn't going to change that. But it gave him an opportunity to signal, through his presence, that he was not insensitive to the bloodshed, that he cared. It promised to cast him in the responsible, nurturing light of a leader come to comfort those he led, and because he had recently begun his presidential campaign, it was guaranteed to bring him national attention. He had made the judicious decision not to speak -- and, thus, not to make his appearance seem overtly political -- but there was a prime, center row of seats for him and his intimates. Print reporters, including me, positioned ourselves as close to it as we could.
Bush saw us as he walked in and sat down; he even nodded in our direction. It was a tiny gesture, nothing wrong with it. But he didn't leave it at that. As preachers preached and singers sang and a city prayed, Bush turned around from time to time to shoot us little smiles. He scrunched up his forehead, as if to ask us silently what we were up to back there. He wiggled his eyebrows, a wacky and wordless hello. These were his usual merry tics, but this was a discordant setting for them, and it was astonishing that he wasn't more concerned that one of the television or still cameras might catch him mid-twinkle.
At one point, when someone near our seats dropped a case of plastic water bottles and caused a clatter, Bush glanced back at us with a teasing, are-you-guys-behaving-yourselves expression, and he kept his amused face pivoted in our direction for an awfully long time. About twenty minutes later, he was at it again. The Rev. Al Meredith, the pastor of the Wedgwood Baptist Church, asked if everyone in the audience wanted "to see the spirit of the living God sweep over this land like a wildfire." Meredith called for raised hands, and he added, "Media, put your notepads down if you're in with us on this." Zoom -- Bush was looking in our direction, eyebrows up, head cocked, the possibility of laughter on his lips.
I was taken aback, but I was not really surprised. From the time I began covering Bush in late August, my first and strongest impressions were of a man chafing against and throwing off the formal constraints of the part he had signed up for, an irreverent rapscallion on intermittently good behavior, Jim Carrey trying to incorporate at least a few elements of Jimmy Stewart. Sometimes he succeeded. Sometimes he didn't. He was asking to be king, but he still reserved the right to play the fool.
It was a role he had inhabited for much of his life, partly because it was thrust on him early, partly because he had discovered over time that it was a way to distinguish and carve a niche for himself in worlds where his other abilities were not always superior. According to some friends, the death of his younger sister, Robin, when she was three years old and he was seven had left him, for a while, not just as an only child but as one of the principal sources of consolation for his mother, Barbara. So he spread good cheer and sowed laughs, and that became his way as he moved through the stages of his youth. He was unexceptional at competitive sports and unexceptional at academics; his father's excellence in both endeavors was something he couldn't match. But he refused to be weighed down by his limitations and found an alternate path to prominence and popularity. He worked his personality, developing a reputation as a good-time fellow and dauntless prankster.
He never once made the honor roll at Andover, although 110 other boys in his class did. He stood out by cracking people up. During his senior year, he put on a top hat and rose to his feet at a weekly school assembly to announce that he was forming a stickball league -- a rebellious digression from the school's hyperserious athletic traditions -- and appointing himself its high commissioner. He named one team the Nads, which predictably led to the testicular game-day exhortation: "GoNads!" Another team was called the Beavers. At Yale, he impressed classmates not with his brains or his brawn but with his bonhomie...Continues...
Excerpted from Ambling Into History by Bruni, Frank Copyright © 2004 by Frank Bruni. Excerpted by permission.
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